In a new and more lenient policy, the head of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has instructed the agency's legal office to stop the deportation proceedings of foreign nationals who may now be eligible for a green card.
South Florida immigration attorneys and activists said the move is the first solid evidence of more tolerance by ICE toward some foreign nationals facing removal to their homelands.
Affected are possibly tens of thousands who are married or related to a U.S. citizen or a legal resident who has filed a petition for them. The immigrants who will benefit must also not have a criminal conviction.
In unveiling the change, ICE assistant secretary John Morton said the agency will soon drop deportation proceedings against those now eligible under the new guidelines.
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"Where there is an underlying application or petition and ICE determines . . . that a non-detained individual appears eligible for relief from removal, [its attorneys] should promptly move to dismiss proceedings,'' Morton wrote in an Aug. 20 memo to the agency's principal legal adviser and the head of enforcement and removal operations.
"Good for John Morton and ICE,'' said Cheryl Little, executive director of Miami-based Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC), who obtained the memo and gave a copy to El Nuevo Herald. "This is the kind of reform we need. Targeting those who intend to do harm while expediting the cases of law-abiding immigrants is the best use of ICE's precious resources and will save taxpayers money.''
Richard Rocha, ICE deputy press secretary in Washington, reiterated his agency's policy of focusing first on removing foreign nationals who have criminal convictions.
"This administration is committed to smart, effective immigration reform, prioritizing the arrest and removal of criminal aliens and those who pose a danger to national security,'' said Rocha in a statement. "In 2010 to date, ICE has removed more than 150,000 convicted criminals -- a record number.''
Little's office said one of its clients, identified only as Josianne, may benefit from the Morton memo.
Josianne and her youngest daughter, both Haitian, are now in deportation proceedings despite petitions filed by Josianne's U.S. citizen husband. The proceedings have been postponed because of delays in processing the petitions.
The Morton memo will allow FIAC to ask the immigration judge to dismiss the case.
Prior to the memo, foreign nationals in deportation proceedings likely would have been deported even if they had pending relative petitions.
In 2007, for example, a case that deeply upset the Haitian community in Miami involved the deportation of a Haitian woman married to a U.S. citizen.
Marie Thelusma was picked up in her Miami Gardens home and deported to her native country just before she was to appear at an interview at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services where her residence petition might have been granted, said her attorney, Candace Jean. After her arrest, chronicled in columns by then Miami Herald columnist Ana Menendez, USCIS sent a form letter canceling the appointment and expressing regrets for ``any inconvenience this may cause.''
Jean said she planned to review the Morton memo, but doubted it could help her client because generally new policies are not retroactive. But she said had the memo been in place in 2007, it could have spared her client and many foreign nationals in similar circumstances from being separated from families.
"It would have saved many spouses from losing a spouse and, sadly, many children from losing a parent,'' Jean said.